“Don’t go to Detroit.”
That’s what people would say to me when they saw my route. Because Detroit is awful. Detroit is bad. It’s scary. It’s full of crime. It’s sad. It’s wasted away. Go to Ann Arbor instead. Don’t bother with Detroit. That’s what the Americans said.
The Canadians, however, seemed to have a different picture of Detroit. When I told the Canadians I met in Toronto that Detroit was my next stop, they expressed both joy and jealousy. “I love Detroit,” they would say to me. When I told them how Americans think of the city, the people in Toronto shrugged it off. “It just has a bad rap,” they said. “It’s a great city.”
After spending two very enjoyable days in Detroit with a couple of new friends, I started to wonder about the city’s reputation. Outside of the special excursions we made to the more deserted parts of town, Detroit felt like any other city I’d visited. There was of course one small difference.
When I first crossed the boarder into the city I pulled over at a McDonalds to use the internet and get a quick bite to eat. I sat there with my Chicken McNuggets and couldn’t help but notice something strange about the commercials playing on the TV in the corner. I recognized the brands and the premises, but they were slightly different than the commercials I’d seen before. The attractive, smiling white people had been switched out for attractive, smiling black people.
The patrons of the restaurant were also black. So were all of the employees. For forty minutes I watched people come and go and I remained the only non-black person in the building.
Integration is a myth.
More specifically, it is a myth that 50 years ago our society became integrated and all racial segregation since then has just been the gradual end of a now extinct way of living. Yes, things were much worse then. Yes, we have come a long way. But the truth is, racial segregation is alive and well.
I know what you’re thinking, “Of course it is. We all know there is still racism in America. We know that there are still plenty of black neighborhoods and so-called Chinatowns.” That’s what I would have said, too. But the unspoken caveat to those words is always “But come on, at least it’s not that way everywhere.”
It is that way everywhere.
The problem with being a stranger in a strange town is that you don’t know where you’re not supposed to be. Sometimes during my travels I would get lost and end up driving a few blocks in the wrong direction. And when I say wrong direction, I do mean the black direction. It sounds awful because we like to think that as a society we’ve moved past that. After all, if we hadn’t, we would all feel pretty horrible for sitting around and letting it happen.
A few months ago a demographic researcher at the University of Virginia took the most recent U.S. census data and used it to create a racial map of the United States. There was a different color for each major racial group (red for Asian, yellow for Hispanics, etc), and a single dot for every citizen. Some images, such as the one for Detroit, caused a lot of discussion online. The map clearly showed how the city is broken up by racial districts, with black, white, and hispanic existing in completely separate spaces.
It’s not just Detroit. I see it in every place I visit. It doesn’t matter how big or small the town is. In Savannah the black/white divide is on Bull Street, at least until you get to the entirely white downtown (which is flanked by black neighborhoods on each side). The racial map of Tulsa spins out like a color wheel, with green dots to the north (black), yellow to the north east (Hispanic), and blue to the southeast (white). In Memphis we went to see Wild Bill’s (north of Jackson Avenue), and my host was so concerned about the neighborhood she told me to stay in the car while she went to ask the convenience store owner a question. In San Francisco I went to Mission Town, which has trash on the streets and bars on the windows, unlike the houses just two blocks north of 16th street. New York City is so divided the map could have been drawn in crayon. In Roswell, NM the Hispanics have a concentrated area in the southeast, but it’s almost entirely white north of – I kid you not – Country Club Road. I could go on. Pick any spot on the map and you will see it.
And everywhere I went I found people that could easily identify the “bad part of town,” while being completely unaware that they were also talking about “the black part of town,” or “the Mexican part of town.”
Detroit has become America’s bad part of town. It is that little section of the country that most of us never need to drive through, that place that you know used to have a really beautiful movie theater and a great music scene. It’s the place you wouldn’t try to walk through at night. The place with the high crime statistics that make you look over your shoulder at the man walking behind you and wonder, “Is he a criminal too?”
My guess for why Detroit doesn’t have the same effect on Canadians is that they’re not from “this town.” They don’t hear what we hear on the news. They’re tourists who don’t realize that there are some parts of this country where you just don’t go at night.
Detroit as a city is almost entirely black. The strict dividing line at 8 Mile Road (the city limits) is true. I drove past it on my way out of Detroit, and the city turns from black to white at that block. While I was in Detroit I mentioned the census map to my host Lizzie, who hadn’t seen it yet. I pulled it up and we took a look at her city.
Immediately we found that we were sitting in the most racial diverse part of town: Wayne State University. We started searching the map for other anomalies, and Lizzie would try to figure out the reasons behind them. One concentrated section of white people was near a well-known country club and golf course. Another collection was in the Sacred Heart Seminary. There was a small population of Asians around the hospital. For each deviation, we could determine a cause. I mentioned to Lizzie that the lines in Seattle were present but not as severe, and we turned the map towards my home city.
I showed her the various neighborhoods and gave my explanations. The strong patch of red indicated just how many Asian students attend the University of Washington. The sparse number of dots near Bill Gates’ house showed just how big the homes are in Medina. After a few minutes in Seattle, I pulled the map down to my real home town of Des Moines, about 40 minutes south of the city. I hadn’t looked at Des Moines yet, but I pointed out the streets I could recognize, showing her my childhood home, my school, the church I grew up in, etc.
“What’s right there?” she asked, pointing to a dense patch of yellow that indicated a Hispanic neighborhood.
“Huh,” I said, “I don’t know.”
The racial map doesn’t name every street, so I pulled up the Google map of the city to compare. Back and forth I went, over and over again, trying to find an explanation for this tiny concentration of Hispanic people.
“They’re apartment buildings,” I said. Looking closer at the Google map, I realized there were businesses back there as well, and a lot more houses than I ever realized. I tried to picture the area in my mind. “I guess I just never had any reason to go in there.”
“Oh,” Lizzie said.
“This is the road we took to get to church,” I told her. “I drove by this neighborhood twice a week for ten years.”
The Hispanic neighborhood has probably always been there. I just never knew. I needed a researcher from Virginia to tell me about the people who lived ten minutes away from me my entire life. This is how we’ve managed to keep up this beautiful lie of segregation ending in the 1960s. We don’t know it’s there because our lives are carefully crafted to avoid travel outside the racial lines. I never went into the Hispanic neighborhood near my house, why would I? Why would I go to those grocery stores and auto shops when there are all those other businesses on my way to school? You know, the businesses where all the other white people go. As far as schools in the greater Seattle area go, I would say that my high school was fairly diverse. There were black people and Koreans and Russians and Mexicans and Colombians. It was easy to pick out these group of course, because everyone clumped together. I had my white friends, the Koreans had their Korean friends. And there was no hostility. I knew plenty of non-white students. They were in all my classes and we worked together and laughed together and got along famously. We were friends. And then at lunch I went and sat with the other white girls because it’s high school and that’s what you do.
But it doesn’t change. I went to college and I had white friends. I met my white boyfriend. I got my first job out of college, working with all those white coworkers. Every step of the way, there I was, following the path that would lead me directly to people whose skin color matched my own.
I had the chance to move into a decent apartment with some friends of mine a few years back, but opted not to. Why? Well, my bedroom would have been a bit small and frankly, it was in a pretty sketchy part of town. Excuse me, I mean it was in the black part of town. I didn’t realize this consciously of course, I didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to understand its racial makeup. I just knew I’d heard bad things, and there were a few too many chain link fences for my taste. None of the streets or businesses felt familiar. I didn’t feel comfortable there, so I didn’t move there. Instead I moved into a tiny studio twelve blocks north in a very nice, very white part of town.
I was ignorant, and ignorance is our enemy. Ignorance breeds complacency, and we have all allowed ourselves to willingly engage in racial segregation through complacency. We give white people no reason to venture into non-white neighborhoods, so they don’t even know they’re there. We make sure that there are plenty of Asian-run businesses right next to where all the Asian people live, so they never have to bother with white people when going to the grocery store. And you probably hadn’t thought about it, but in less you live near an institute for higher education, you probably live in a segregated neighborhood.
So this is what I’m saying, very openly, very plainly, and with so much conviction I feel guilty about it: I am an active participant in racial segregation. And so are you.
In high school they explained it to me like this: beer sales always go up at the same time as ice cream sales. So does eating ice cream make people want beer? No. There is another factor. A lurking variable. The beer sales have nothing to do with the ice cream sales. It’s just hot outside.
Correlation, not causation.
I don’t know how to end decades of self-segregation. I don’t know how to separate race from poverty from crime. There are a lot of black people in Detroit. And there is a lot of poverty. And there is a lot of crime. And these relationships show us correlation, not causation. Sometimes I feel like we have lots of data on the ice cream and beer sales, but we never think to check the temperature. We don’t notice it’s hot outside, I suppose, because it’s always been hot outside. There is no non-racist time in America to look back on for comparison. Beer and ice cream sales have never dropped.
The fact is, the only model most of us know for getting rid of racially segregated neighborhoods is gentrification. I heard this word tossed around a lot in my travels, and always with distain. People hate the idea of gentrification. People don’t like the white majority coming in and taking over. Yet they also don’t want to live in a racially segregated society where no one ever tries to live apart from their color-coded tribe. And knowing that racial segregation can lead to economic segregation, people also know it’s unfair and unrealistic to insist that the minorities move into white neighborhoods. Trying to “fix” the problem of segregation is a good way to lose an argument with yourself.
The best thing I can think to do is start looking for those lurking variables. Not just the Who and the What, but the Why and the How. And while I encourage you to read and research, I don’t think we’ll find our lurking variables in studies and statistics. I think we’ll find them when we personally make the effort to cross the lines. I think the answers are south of 16th Street, or on the other side of Madison. I think we could all stand to get a little bit lost in our own home towns. Take a look at the map, and purposely go towards a splash of color you didn’t know was there. You might be surprised by what you find on the other side of 8 Mile. It’s more than just a bunch of green dots.
End Note: If you’re interested in some of the more proactive ways in which housing discrimination has been created and maintained, I recommend an episode of This American Life that aired last November call “House Rules.” The audio and transcript can be found here.